Ben Wilkins: Piano Pop, Beautifully Arranged The Montreal singer-songwriter blends the wry wit of Ben Folds with the flair of Rufus Wainwright. Wilkins sits down with Weekend All Things Considered host Guy Raz to talk about his city, his inspiration and his intriguing new video.
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Ben Wilkins: Piano Pop, Beautifully Arranged

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Ben Wilkins: Piano Pop, Beautifully Arranged

Ben Wilkins: Piano Pop, Beautifully Arranged

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GUY RAZ, host:

The city of Montreal is arguably the center of indie music right now. Bands like the hugely successful Arcade Fire are pushing the boundaries of rock and pop with found sounds and creative studio production.

But one new artist emerging from that scene is actually going back, back to when the straightforward music of Burt Bacharach and Harry Nilsson ruled the airwaves. And his name is Ben Wilkins.

(Soundbite of song, "Through to You")

Mr. BEN WILKINS (Musician): (Singing) Thank you for the stew. You've always been a friend and complementary provider of sorts.

RAZ: Ben Wilkins' six-song EP is called "Back of My Head," and he joins me from the CBC in Ottawa, Canada.

Ben, welcome.

Mr. WILKINS: Thank you.

RAZ: I mean this as a fan of his music, but your sound reminds me a little bit of Ben Folds. Is he a big influence?

Mr. WILKINS: Ben Folds Five, I remember the first time I heard them in high school, they really made me turn my head. It was just so different than anything that was on the radio, than any other band that I was listening to at the time. And certainly, the complexity in the writing really got me interested in listening to him.

RAZ: The song that we're listening to, "Through To You," it actually has a very, very, cool video, and it's the first thing you see when you go to your website, and actually, the site is so cool that I think anybody listening should go to You've got to see it.

So in it, you're playing an upright piano. You've got this sort of crowded room full of people milling about behind you. And it seems to be kind of like this stop-motion thing going on or something like that. How did you guys make that video?

Mr. WILKINS: So there's me playing and singing in regular time and then all this activity going on in the background in fast-forward.

I was actually playing the song and singing along three times slower than it was actually, and then the whole video is sped-up afterwards.

RAZ: And so they had to film you separately and then the people behind you separately.

Mr. WILKINS: No, no, we were all filmed at the same time.

RAZ: You were all filmed at the same time.

Mr. WILKINS: I was just playing in slow motion.

RAZ: I see. So you were playing in slow motion, and at one point, this woman sits next to you at the piano in fast motion, and you're still sort of playing in what appears to be regular motion.

Mr. WILKINS: Yeah, it took a lot of practice. I practiced quite a lot on my own, listening to songs three times slower. The song's about 10 minutes long. And singing and playing like that is quite challenging, but I got the hang of it.

(Soundbite of song, "Through To You")

Mr. WILKINS: (Singing) ...playing indifferent. No one gets to you.

RAZ: When I hear your music, it has a little bit of a Paul McCartney feel to it in some places. You've got Burt Bacharach. I mean, you're a pretty young guy. But are you also kind of an old soul?

Mr. WILKINS: I would think so. I certainly grew up listening to a lot of Beatles records, Carole King. Yeah, and still today, I often continue to go back to old recordings made in the late '60s and '70s. There's a romance in that music that just doesn't seem to die.

(Soundbite of song, "Through To You")

Mr. WILKINS: (Singing) 'Cause the world is always whirling around...

RAZ: Are you a bit of an oddity in a sense, in the Montreal music scene? I mean, the city has sort of become this kind of indie-rock powerhouse in the last few years. Obviously, you got Arcade Fire there, there's Patrick Watson and "Wooden Arms." There's Godspeed You! Black Emperor. How does a guy like you, you know, in the '70s, piano singer-songwriter genre fit into that world?

Mr. WILKINS: Yeah, I guess I don't really fit into that world. It's always quite challenging, when we're doing a show, to find someone to play with. I didn't really mean to completely stand out. I was just writing songs that were true to what I wanted to do and the kind of music that I like to listen to also.

RAZ: So, I mean, so how do you sort of operate in that indie Montreal world? I mean, do you sort of just operate outside of it?

Mr. WILKINS: No, I mean, Montreal is a very artistic city. There's certainly the indie-rock sound that has surfaced and gotten pretty popular around the world. But there's all sorts of people doing all sorts of interesting things.

So I don't feel completely disconnected to the city or the music scene per se. I would just say I'm not a standard example of the Montreal sound.

RAZ: My guest is the Montreal-based musician Ben Wilkins. Let's hear the title track from your album, Ben. It's called "Back of My Head."

(Soundbite of song, "Back of My Head")

Mr. WILKINS: (Singing) You surely spoiled a beautiful moment. Are you happy now? You certainly drove me and your point right home like driving burning nails right through my head. The words that you said, did you have to leave them in the back of my head?

RAZ: This is, I think, pretty clearly a bitter and somewhat darkly humorous song. Can you tell me what it's about?

Mr. WILKINS: I went to music school. So one of my professors at one point said, and I still can't understand why he said it or believe that he said it, but he said: Never, ever write a song with a descending bass line.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILKINS: What? How can you tell people not to write a song with a descending bass line? There's been so many great songs that start like that.

So I was at my piano, and I was playing, and then all of a sudden, this voice came in my head: Never write a song with a descending bass line. And I thought: What is he doing there? I don't want this guy in my songwriting circle. So -and as I changed feel, I started to sort of have fun with the idea of doing it anyway and just kind of getting these feelings out.

RAZ: But it could be a song about sort of an argument with a lover or maybe an ex-lover. I mean, it could be heard in so many different ways. And of course, you have the descending bass line in the song. So I guess it's a sort of a thumbing your nose or maybe a different finger at your professor.

Mr. WILKINS: Sure.

(Soundbite of song, Back of My Head")

RAZ: There are a couple references on this record to Asia or flying over the Pacific, Korea. You actually studied in China for a while. Were you studying music there as well?

Mr. WILKINS: I was supposed to be originally, but there was something lost in translation, I think. When I got there, it turned out that I was studying Mandarin at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music.

RAZ: Rather than music.

Mr. WILKINS: But I was at the Conservatory of Music. So I found a way to copy myself a key to the practice rooms and continued playing and writing.

RAZ: Do you think that there was a sound or instruments or a sensibility that you were exposed to out there that you picked up and you can hear on this record?

Mr. WILKINS: It's a tough one to say. While I was living in China, I certainly learned that music is not actually the universal language. We're sometimes told it is.

RAZ: Right.

Mr. WILKINS: But I was playing my songs. I was playing different things I was working on for people there, and they would often say: I listened, but I don't understand. And I said: What do you mean, you don't - I mean, you don't understand the lyrics because they're in English. Is that what you mean? They say: No, no, I don't understand the feeling. I don't understand how this is supposed to make me feel.

So then I thought: Oh, boy, okay. I think I need to fly back to Canada.

RAZ: Wow, that's amazing. So have you sent your record, this album, to any of your friends in China and sort of, you know, said: Hey, do you guys get it now?

Mr. WILKINS: Yeah, actually I have. I sent this. There's some tracks that they really like, and there are some tracks that they like a little less. They like a lot of the ones that sort of have a little bit more of a ballad feel. They really like "Soup For One."

RAZ: So when you try to explain your music to people in China, and they would say I don't know how I'm supposed to feel, how do you want them to hear it?

Mr. WILKINS: I think overall, even in the songs with a little bit of darker or sadder topic, there's always a joy that comes out in this music because I had, you know, I had such a great time making it.

RAZ: That's Ben Wilkins. His debut EP is called "Back of My Head." You can hear a few tracks at our website,

Ben, thank you so much.

Mr. WILKINS: Thanks a lot.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WILKINS: (Singing) ...the more I find you creeping back in my mind...

RAZ: And for Sunday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Remember, you can hear the best of this program on our new podcast: weekends on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Subscribe or listen at We'll be back next weekend on the radio. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great week.

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